SINGAPORE: Recent news of the Chinese government considering a 9pm and 10pm homework curfew for primary and secondary schoolchildren respectively has sparked a huge debate about the country’s education system in the country.
Considering the heavy workload that Chinese children have, coupled with endless enrichment activities, it isn’t difficult to see why the Chinese government would feel a need to step in.
It may be hard to imagine that such a practice be imposed in Singapore, but one can never rule out the possibility.
Thinking about it worries me, as it does not appear to be focusing on the right problem.
Instead of legislating the time kids should go to bed, should it ever come down to that situation, we should be asking ourselves, how did childhood get so hectic in the first place?
Are children being ferried from class to class, and only able to do their homework after dinner?
Are parents busy making ends meet and only able to coach their kids after hours?
In this context, a homework curfew may be a sledgehammer but does not solve any of the underlying problems when a child has to do homework late into the night.
TACKLE THE PROBLEM OF TOO MUCH HOMEWORK
First, it’s worth tackling the problem of too much homework head on.
Singaporean students aged 15 clocked the third-longest time spent on homework, at 9.4 hours a week, according to an OECD survey conducted in 2012, which is the latest survey on the subject. They are behind students in Shanghai (13.8 hours) and Russia (9.7 hours).
Is the homework load in Singapore that unmanageable? Not really.
My Primary Four daughter occasionally gets a heavy workload which may take her two hours to complete but this thankfully occurs only once or twice a month. Most days, she’s in bed by 8.30pm.
In this, educators play a key role. In my daughter’s school, teachers try to coordinate homework load to avoid overloading on any given day.
This helps ensure that homework does not morph into a mountain that students have to chip away at. (That is, unless the various tuition classes are adding to the load.)
Second, instead of imposing a curfew, parents should refrain from packing their kids schedules.
We made a conscious choice to keep tuition for our daughter to a minimum (1.5 hours a week), and reserve her weekday afternoons for schoolwork, revision and free play. She also goes for violin and art lessons, interests she chose for herself.
Even then although she seems to have a balanced schedule, we still pick up heightened stress signals over weekends when she has a test looming or Chinese spelling to prepare for.
So even what a parent thinks is a sensible lifestyle may not be one for a child.
There is no hard-and-fast rules that can be applied to every child. A high ability and energetic child may crave greater levels of intellectual stimulation or physical activity.
For a parent to know when it is too much, we must tune in to the child’s emotions, and provide a safe space for them to voice out.
EMPOWER CHILDREN TO EXERCISE AGENCY OVER THEIR SCHOOL LOAD
Third, are children imbued with a sense of agency and ownership over their schoolwork?
Do they have sensible work habits? Or do they count on parents to nag at them before opening up assignments?
Parents know two children of equal ability can achieve very different test scores because of work habits.
One may procrastinate and distract himself with gadgets and other less urgent tasks, while the other is organised and has advanced planning skills so he knows exactly what needs to get done when.
So do we instill in our children that homework is their responsibility, and that how long they take to complete tasks is something they must be aware of and plan accordingly?
Or do we allow them to abdicate accountability and carry the weight of the homework responsibility ourselves as parents?
Little do we know that the more we worry, the less the child is bothered. But if we spend the first two years of formal education instilling good work habits in our children, the chances of homework battles will be markedly reduced.
A better solution is to establish a homework routine, and use visual cues to remind the child, for example, a homework chart placed above the study desk they can tick off daily.
After homework is completed, the child gets to choose their next preferred activity, be it reading a book or playing with his mates.
If your child is struggling with some hard concepts, try asking how they want to receive help. Maybe a few sessions with his teacher would suffice, or he could message a friend.
Where both parents work late, try finding other options for homework help, such as a reliable student care, a nearby tuition centre that offers a space for students to study outside classroom hours or even a trusted neighbour.
READ: Commentary: The dangers of leaving our kids with a childcare centre or babysitter – how real are the risks?
WHAT A DISCIPLINED LIFE REALLY LOOKS LIKE
Fourth, some parents have argued kids need to keep up their academic rigour and stay ahead of the competition, so they put in the hours.
In their minds, discipline is why kids stay up late to do homework, which is a healthy inclination to be encouraged.
But arguably, such discipline should also apply to other areas of life. A child needs a balanced life, which includes nutrition, work, rest, and play to be at his best.
If they prefer downtime in the afternoons and can cope with homework later, this could be their optimal rhythm.
But if bedtime gets pushed to the point where the child cannot concentrate the next day, it may create a vicious cycle where schoolwork gets harder when the child isn’t able to absorb during lessons.
SHOOT FOR BALANCE
The pressure to achieve in this modern age is ever-constant, but so is the need to reflect and change.
We all want our kids to succeed, but the science is telling us that we’ve been focusing on the wrong things.
As guardians of our children’s well-being, we need to switch gears to avoid raising a generation of burnt out youths. Instead of aiming for achievement, we should aim for balance, agency and self-discipline. The achievement will follow.
We must not get into a situation where we have to resort to curfews.
June Yong is a mother of three, an educational therapist and owner of Mama Wear Papa Shirt, a blog that discusses parenting and education in Singapore.